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'Best of' Album Reveals Depth, Grace of Tom Paxton

May 25, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Tom Paxton is an artist who gets far too little attention in the continuing celebration of the '60s singer-songwriter movement.

The writer of such graceful, evocative tunes as "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound," Paxton didn't enjoy the commercial success of many of his folk-flavored rivals.

Still, his recordings reflect an independence and depth that make his body of work one of the most valuable of the period--and some of his most celebrated tunes are included in a new retrospective CD.

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**** Tom Paxton, "The Best of Tom Paxton, " Elektra Traditions/Rhino. Paxton's songs have been recorded over the years by a remarkably diverse group of singers, from Joan Baez and Willie Nelson to Mel Torme and the Irish rock band the Pogues. But the emotional heart of his music is best captured in his own recordings.

Paxton, who continues to tour and record, has a voice with much of the Everyman clarity of John Denver, but his writing had a deeper, more questioning edge--a range that went from the commentary of Woody Guthrie to some of the satire of Tom Lehrer.

Like so many on the '60s folk scene, Paxton seemed to be expressing in his best songs a generation's search for purpose in an age of shifting cultural values.

But Paxton wasn't simply an echo of the times. He wrote with an independence that led him to be an early critic of President Johnson's position on Vietnam (1965's "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation"), and he later wrote about such varied issues as the environment ("Whose Garden Was This") and a generation's disillusionment with drugs ("Cindy's Cryin' ").

The singer-songwriter was born in Chicago in 1937, but it wasn't until his family moved to Oklahoma a decade later that he fell under the spell of folk music. It was only natural that he found a hero in Guthrie, who was also from Oklahoma. But his greatest inspiration was the Weavers' Carnegie Hall concert album from the '50s.

"Some of the spirit of that album said there are bullies in this world, and they won't go away until we stand up to them," Paxton says in the liner notes to his retrospective. "And yet that album was so musical. Folk music had a dimension that pop didn't have, some true salt to it."

Paxton has lived up to those same standards in his own music.

About the development of his own style, he adds, "The great lesson [I learned] was to get off the soapbox and draw a picture. The point of view is all in the picture; you don't have to tell anyone what to think or how to feel about the picture. How well you draw it will determine how powerful the work of art will be."

Also in the stores: MCA Records' new "20th Century Masters / The Millennium Collection" series doesn't offer much in the way of liner notes or other special features. But the individual entries do focus on genuine hits by the various artists spotlighted, not just a few teasing hits and filler.

The label's Bing Crosby set includes "White Christmas," "Swinging on a Star" and "Play a Simple Melody," while the Chuck Berry package features "Maybellene," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven."

Among other artists represented in the series: Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, the Who, Buddy Holly, the Mamas & the Papas, B.B. King, Bill Haley and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Each album contains 10 tracks and is budget-priced at $11.98.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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